From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon
Conflict resolution is a skill that is heavily grounded in experience. Dealing with and handling conflict teaches a new lesson every time, and these lessons help define an approach, a sensibility, and a method. This experience has also been shown to develop one significant skill: the ability to detect and preempt conflict before it even happens.
Conflict does not just appear out of nowhere. A series of utterances and interactions occur, each one evidence of the brewing storm, before the conflict ultimately reaches the somewhat irksome plateau of a spat. If you can see and detect these indicators, you have the opportunity to step in before the going really gets rough.
Although every community is different, many of these warning signs are shared across all communities. Let’s now take a spin through some of these indicators of a conflict on the horizon. As we explore these topics, we will end each discussion with a quick and dirty set of preventative bullet points that you can note down to help avoid these issues in the first place.
One of the most delightful attributes of community is its ability to energize and enable people. Without having any prior experience or reputation, many go on to develop expertise and respect by starting at the beginning and leveraging the opportunity of community to do amazing things. One underlying attribute that makes this possible is the openness involved in community: everyone in a volunteer community is welcome to join and participate. With such openness as the norm, the exceptions to the rule—when people who actually get rejected from a community—are usually those who perform gross misconduct that socially disappoints the wider community. Thankfully these kinds of incidents are rare.
If we draw a conceptual line that puts the ideal polite and engaged contributor on the far left of the line and the frustrating, imbecilic clod on the far right, there is a significant scale in between where the vast majority of your contributors will find their home. Those personalities who edge further toward the right of that line are prime candidates for causing frustration and conflict. Let’s explore this in more depth.
Profiling the polemical
In my time working with community I have experienced a range of personalities that have been controversial, disruptive, and at times outright infuriating. Within this realm, it is tempting to shun each of these figures as undesirable members of your community and try to disengage with them in the hope they will move on to annoy someone else. In many cases, though, this is a crying shame. Some community members can appear irritating and troublesome at first, but when you give them the benefit of the doubt, you and they can often grow to work well together. This all boils down to understanding personality differences and the causes behind them.
When you deal with conflict, you are invariably dealing with cases in which someone just doesn’t like someone else, largely driven by personality differences. If you can understand and reconcile these differences, progress can be made. Let’s first look at some of the reasons whypeople may appear vexing to others:
Although many will deny it, age can dramatically affect how people engage in community. This can vary from methods of communication (younger people often shorten and codify their language, such as with “txtspeak” and “lolspeak”) to different values, perspectives, opinions, and approaches. In many cases younger people are more trigger-happy, adventurous, and argumentative than older people, and this can be a prominent source of conflict. As many people get older, they become “set in their ways” and less likely to change and reflect on their views. Although this naturally does not affect everyone, it does apply to many.
With so many communities living online and garnering an international audience, culture can play a big role. This can affect temperament, preparedness, approach, and other elements. Culture can be a subtle contributor to conflict: often these differences are difficult to spot unless you are intimately familiar with both cultures. This is also a sensitive topic, as the acknowledgment of cultural differences can often be wrongly interpreted as racism. Tread carefully, Obi-Wan.
It is interesting how some people just seem to have more opinions than others. These people can be both a blessing and a curse. If you put two of these opinion-laden folks together, things can get fiery quickly. The subtlety here is not in whether someone has an opinion but how constructively that person can express it.
The level of each person’s knowledge of the subject and the community itself can play a huge part in conflict issues. Sometimes those with more experience in the community expect that those with less experience to know more, and consequently frustration builds. Not good.
The interesting commonality among all these attributes is that people can and have been known to mature in each of these areas. Understanding this maturity can be the key to understanding your wider community and its personal development better. It can also be an important topic to communicate when things get contentious.
Community participation is a little like starting a new career. In the beginning, you make unintentional mistakes. Failing to see the mistakes, you need to have people point them out for you so you can learn. The reason for these mistakes is not because you are stupid, but simply because you don’t know the ropes yet. When you learn how things work, the mistakes usually decline consistently until they become rare blips in an otherwise perfect signal.
From a community leadership perspective, it is essential to understand the importance of allowing people to ature. You are going to come across some people who frustrate you. Some of these people will make every mistake in the book, and at times it will make you question your own faith in community (“How can we ever achieve our goals with people like this in the world?”).
To really feel this growth in people, you need to experience it. After a few years of conscious awareness of how people mature, you are sure to see and experience examples of it happening in your community. For example, a guy joined a user group that I had formed and proceeded to break every possible rule, social convention, and principle in the group. He frustrated many, some of whom lit their torches and called for his ousting. Although there was little doubt that he was a frustrating force in an otherwise calm community, I had a hunch that he had the ability to change. I held strong, encouraged patience among my fellow community members, and before long we started to see improvement.
As the guy spent more time in the community he learned how it worked, began to take part in the culture as opposed to questioning it, and eventually became one of the most proficient and well-respected members. Today others look to him for advice and guidance; it just took him a little while to get there.
While some people are able to grow and mature, some outright bad apples may unfortunately join your community. Some of these people will be obvious (posting loud, obnoxious, or offensive comments), but some will be far more subtle and devious. The latter are often known as poisonous people. These are the people who not only express dissatisfaction with your community or direction, but also actively seek others to join their campaign of negativity. These people are not only interested in expressing their own concerns, but also want to build a coup of counteropinion against your community.
Many of these poisonous people often operate under the radar. The conversations will typically happen in private with only one side of the perspective represented, but their actions will lead to substantial conflict that threatens the entire community. Try to be aware of who these people are. Typically their names will come up in conversations where it becomes clear they are expressing private concerns and negativity with multiple people. Expressing concern does not make people poisonous, but privately rallying support against the community without any discussion or debate of the issues in the common communication space does make them poisonous.
You should handle these known entities with caution: jarring moves in their direction can dial up the poison even further. You need to fight poisonous people not with words but with evidence. Disprove their comments with calm and reasoned commentary amply bolstered with third-party references and evidence. You can then let your community members make up their own minds.
TIPS FOR AVOIDING CONFLICT:
- Understand the factors that can affect how people conduct themselves in a community.
- If someone is causing conflict, assess how much you feel they could mature. If you have faith, encourage the detractors to share that faith.
- Identify poisonous people and watch them carefully. Give them additional attention to limit their damage: identify what their concerns are, discuss them, try and weed out any communication errors, and generally try to calm their concerns and worries.
Barriers to Input
One of the most basic concepts in most volunteer communities is openness. For a volunteer community to thrive, openness secures the impression that your community members can have a tangible impact on the direction and focus of the wider community. You always want your community to thrive on the opportunity to discuss, debate, and reason, and for their views to be listened to and acted upon where appropriate. In other words, your community should always feel that their input is welcome. It may not be acted upon, but it should be received in good faith.
Not all communities are created equal. Some are driven in a dictatorial fashion by specific people or by handpicked rock stars. Some communities are far more open, and some are leaderless and driven by consensus and action. It is important that the expectations around input are accurately communicated. If your community is pushing, as part of its core values, openness and the encouragement of input and contribution, you need to ensure that people can actually do that. If they can’t, you are going to have some angry villagers on your hands.
So before you respond to criticism, don’t start from the assumption that it is unfounded. Take a good, hard look at your community and determine whether a problem really does exist. If it does, fix it. Reread this book and ensure you are implementing all the tips scattered throughout regarding open engagement. And invite the critics to help, if they are at all competent and conciliatory.
Bickering can often occur in communities driven by a commercial sponsor. Irrespective of how open your governance is and how well the paid staff of the sponsor engage the rest of the community, volunteers will always worry about having less input in the community than paid staff members. It’s easy to see why: if a company puts your community at the center of its universe and throws some dollars at it, it is likely that they will have a vested interested in making their money work for them. This could theoretically affect the weight of participants' opinions about the community’s direction.
Folks, notice the nicely emphasized theoretically in the previous statement. The reason for this is that I was playing devil’s advocate a little. Many communities have paid sponsors, and in my experience most sponsors respect the existing lines in the sand that the community has drawn and don’t throw their commercial weight around. It is important not to automatically associate “paid sponsor” with “in charge of direction.”
If your community has a paid sponsor, you need to go out of your way to ensure the community members still feel they are enabled to contribute. If your community is open and transparent and has facilities to engage with community development, ensure you celebrate those facilities and regularly remind your community that they will be treated no differently from those representing the commercial interest. If a community member is citing claims of unfairness due to this commercial sponsor, the only way you can achieve this is to build trust. To do this, I recommend that you get on the phone with them, get all the issues out on the table, clarify areas of confusion and miscommunication, and build a schedule of regular communication to tend to and provide feedback on the issues that were raised. You don’t need to always provide solutions, but you do need to provide an ear to the ground and sensitivity to problems and issues.
If you are a community manager for a commercial sponsor, you may find yourself in the difficult spot of the sponsor demanding something that the community doesn’t want. This is a complex and sensitive situation to manage, and you should tread carefully. You should begin by determining exactly what the sponsor (who may well be your boss) wants and how it can achieve this with the least amount of disruption to community goodwill, governance, or processes. If the sponsor is determined to get this work done and is willing to step outside published governance, you should get an outline of the proposed work, submit it to the community, and ask the governing body (if it exists) to gather community feedback on the proposed plan and provide a summary of the community’s feelings on it.
If the sponsor chooses to ignore this opinion and go ahead, you need to make it very, very clear that it could significantly harm community relations. Irrespective of whether there is a commercial sponsor, the trick here is to keep your ear to the ground when people feel that they don’t have input into decisions and/or direction. When there is a sense of lost control, people will often bottle it up and discuss it only with a few other friends who they feel will sympathize with them. These people are not poisonous, and there is no malice behind their actions: they just don’t know where to turn and feel that they are not being listened to. In such circumstances, the issue can quickly blow out of proportion. If you get a whiff that something is not quite right, investigate it immediately and reassure those concerned that things have not changed and the community is still as volunteer-focused as it has ever been.
To reassure your community, you should remind them of the community-facing resources that encourage people to submit their ideas and views. In the Ubuntu community, we put the following in place to encourage an environment of openness and collaboration:
A range of public mailing lists are available, complete with publicly visible archives.
This is a website in which people can submit ideas to be voted on. This offers a great list of items that are high-priority in the minds of the Ubuntu user community.
Public IRC channels:
A range of publicly accessible IRC chat channels where Canonical staff members perform most of their work, and therefore have a virtual ear to the ground.
Sponsored developer participation:
Canonical also sponsors many community developers to the twice-annual Ubuntu Developer Summit. This encourages strong community participation.
These resources and their open and participatory nature should speak legions in the interest of welcoming your community’s input and ideas. Although you should certainly remind your members of these open facilities, you should also go one step further. If you have a serious complaint on your hands from someone who feels that her input is not welcomed, you should dig through these resources and find examples when the community has been involved in a productive change. Pointing to a public mailing list is one thing, but pointing to five productive conversations on that mailing list that illustrate your community’s openness is much more valuable.
I have one final note about this particular cause of conflict. You should expect that some people will generate conflict simply because they offered input and their input was not acted upon. As an example, someone may recommend that your community takes a particular direction, but for various reasons that direction is not taken and the original provider of the input gets agitated and makes claims that he is not being listened to. This is nothing more than griping. You will always need to deal with these kinds of accusations: you simply can’t please all the people all of the time. In this scenario the solution is to again provide evidence that your community has engaged in input. But do be frank: tell the complainer that sometimes not everyone gets their way. Provide examples of how you personally have not gotten your way as a counter to him feeling isolated and singled out.
TIPS FOR AVOIDING CONFLICT:
- Ensure that there are very clear channels in which your community can engage.
- Ensure that feedback, opinions, and ideas are discussed, considered, and engaged with.
- If part of a commercial sponsor, always ensure that your staff members are publicly engaging and not hiding in private communication channels.
Problems with Responsibility
Every community contains groups of people who have clear and perceived responsibilities. These folks are commonly seen as leaders who make decisions and the real movers and shakers who represent the wider community. These people with responsibility can include:
Members of councils, boards, advisory groups, and more
People who run the many and varied teams your community may have in place
People specifically given the responsibility to help advise and smooth how the community works
Prominent members of the community who fund significant chunks of it and possibly pay staff to work with it Each of these roles brings an expectation around engagement. Your community will expect a certain degree of professionalism, responsibility, and responsiveness. When a member feels that these attributes are compromised, up pops the big hairy eyeball that points at said leader.
I don’t like hairy eyeballs, and neither should you. There are two primary causes of this conflict that happen far more in communities than they should, and both are closely interlinked. The first is having too many eggs in one basket. This is when a single person has too much responsibility and control over a given part of the community. This can happen a lot with resource management. It is common to have one person as the single point of contact for administering mailing lists, accounts, forums, or other resources. This is all fine and dandy when that person can keep up with the maintenance requests, but when that falters, frustration follows closely after.
This ties into the second issue: responsiveness, a problem that has plagued every community. The reason is fairly obvious when you consider it: community leaders are typically highly motivated, fidgety people who have no problem keeping themselves occupied. Busy people tend to become really busy people, and it is not uncommon for them to take on a little too much. Too many responsibilities and not enough time are a recipe for further community frustration.
Remember that you could be a bottleneck, too. If you find that your TODO list is spiraling out of control, it is likely you are a bottleneck. Check which items are blocking on you, and try to spread them out to more people.
If left untended, these issues can cause wider annoyance and even nastiness. This happened in a community in which I played a loose role a few years back. There was a single community member who maintained many of the resources the community used. This person always denied additional help and contributions and wanted to handle the resources himself. As time went, on he became increasingly difficult to get a hold of. Maintenance requests were largely ignored. Frustration set in and thus emerged accusations of ego, self-obsession, the willingness to put personal interests ahead of the community, and other irksome claims.
While at a conference, I was chatting to a friend of mine about these issues and he gave me a piece of advice that has stayed with me. He said:
You know, I can understand the frustration people have with [BLANK], but the reason he has become unresponsive is not because of any malicious intent but purely because he just got busy. We are all guilty of this.
He wasn’t wrong. Even though many were claiming this guy was fast becoming the son of the devil, such ramblings became overstated because (a) they were largely expressed in private cabals of people who all agreed, and (b) they had never confronted [BLANK] with the issues and never got his side of the story. Movie fans may consider this all very reminiscent of the legend of the unseen Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects: the legend was somewhat outstripping the reality.
The obvious solution to this problem is to avoid these bottleneck issues in the first place, but despite your best efforts, you are still likely to experience some conflict as a result of these issues. Your primary role here is to investigate both sides of the story, provide feedback from everyone involved, and make necessary changes that are in the interests of the community where required. Don’t allow members of your community to become Keyser Söze: break down the issue, understand all sides, and bring balance to the discussion.
TIPS FOR AVOIDING CONFLICT:
- Try to avoid bottlenecks set up by specific community members. If you experience them, unblock them as soon as possible.
- Dissuade against personal comments and remarks if bottlenecks appear.
- Always consider whether bottlenecks have a malicious undertone. If they don’t, make that clear to detractors.
- Encourage public discussion of resource issues as opposed to private bickering sessions.
Lack of Justice
The final topic we should cover as a common source of conflict is the feeling that previous conflict issues or problems were not handled in a manner that was expected.
Conflict resolution is seen by many as a means of those with influence delivering justice where it is genuinely required. When that justice is not exercised, previously happy bunnies can dramatically take on the guise of an extremely agitated and frustrated negativabunny. That’s right, folks, I just said “negativabunny.” Let’s see how much Google Juice we can squeeze out of that word....
Claims of ineffective conflict resolution and injustice are concerns that call on you to commit a significant amount of your energy. While there are many causes for conflict, your community will depend on its leaders to unblock conflict and restore order. When this happens, all conflict feels temporary and manageable. If your community loses faith in its leader’s ability to unblock and resolve these problems, it can feel as if the earth is shaking. It can make the community feel like a lawless state in which agitation and arguments reign supreme. This is obviously not a good position to be in.
One trait of a firm and clear governance structure is to allow assessments of the very people who assess and handle conflicts. As an example, if you have a forums community governed by a Forums Council, that council should deal with conflict and unrest. If that council fails to reach a desirable outcome, concerned community members can escalate the matter to the top-level Community Council that the Forums Council is subservient to.
The most important advice in avoiding this kind of criticism is always to engage in conflict resolution in a detailed and effective way. If this is a public conflict, you should regularly engage with the community to show you are helping to deal with the situation. If the conflict is private, those who claim that conflict was not resolved may simply be unaware that it was resolved. In many cases you can settle any concerns by dropping a quick email to the concerned members to let them know that the situation was handled and resolved.
TIPS FOR AVOIDING CONFLICT:
- Always deal with conflict. Never leave issues languishing or unresolved.
- In public conflict, ensure you are seen to be acting. Provide input, feedback, and reassurance in public communication channels. Justice must be done and it must be seen to be done.
- Always be responsive to concerns.
PHYSICAL VIOLENCE: NEVER ACCEPTABLE:
It goes without saying that violence is never acceptable in your community. While it is rare, you must be prepared to take a zero-tolerance view in case it does happen. If someone is violent to another member, make it clear that (a) they must leave the community, (b) you will inform the police, and (c) they will be able to rejoin the community after they have cooled down and demonstrated that they will not resort to such behavior.
Informing the authorities—which includes the police as well as the leaders of institutions you’re involved with, such as universities—is important for several reasons. First, violent people tend to escalate their behavior imperceptibly, and law enforcement can benefit from seeing patterns of escalating behavior so they can ward off real danger. Second, you need to protect your community against legal retaliation, because violent people often turn around and invent charges against their victims.
Another subtle point is that you consider very carefully whether you should mention that violence is never tolerated. For many, the merest mention of the topic is so obvious that it can be interpreted as patronizing. This really depends on your community. For example, it is undoubtedly going to be more acceptable to mention this topic in an urban regeneration community as opposed to a local neighborhood knitting group.